16 Feb

Beyond Evolution: Religious Questions in Science Classrooms

The AAAS Annual Meeting offers a unique opportunity to engage with scientists from around the world on a wide range of topics. This year DoSER brought together a panel of three experts to discuss an issue that continues to challenge US educators: How can science teachers address the concerns of religious students about science? A number of scientific issues may intersect with religious beliefs – topics such as evolution, climate change, the potential of life elsewhere in the universe, and even the purview and boundaries of science itself. Joined by 200 audience members, our speakers considered the questions raised by these matters and offered information and strategies to help teachers address them in the classroom setting.

First up was Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, and a long-time participant in the debate surrounding evolution and religious beliefs. His testimony at the famous trial in Dover, PA was instrumental in the ruling to keep Intelligent Design out of public high school science classes. Miller has also recounted his personal experience of reconciling his religious beliefs with science in his book Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution. He began his presentation by noting that there is a pervasive stereotype that “rational science is at war with irrational faith”, but he pointed out that the facts don’t bear this out—a number of surveys demonstrate that religious or spiritual beliefs among professional scientists are actually quite common. Telling this to students can play an important role in dispelling the notion that religious beliefs are incompatible with the practice of science. As an example, he points to Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the pioneers of the modern evolutionary synthesis and famous for saying, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” But very few people know that Dobzhansky also wrote in the very same article: “The Creator has created the living world not by caprice but by evolution propelled by natural selection.”

Miller then noted that while certain religious beliefs do create obstacles to scientific understanding, studies have found that the acceptance of evolution, for example, grows with the level of education, even among those who describe themselves as religious fundamentalists (1). Moreover, students who come to college with a preconceived notion that science and religion are in conflict tend to drop this view as they learn more about science (2). Surprisingly, these changes occur in secular and religious institutions alike. Miller emphasized that science should be described and taught as a process and not just a collection of facts. He concluded, “We can increase student acceptance of science by teaching more science, by teaching it better, and by helping them understand that the conflict model of science and religion is not something they need to adhere to.”

Next to speak was Mark McCaffrey, a Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). McCaffrey spoke from his experiences as a long-time participant in efforts to increase the public understanding of climate change. He began by citing a study of 10 to 12 year olds in inner city Denver, many of whom had never been to the mountains. For them, nature began right outside their own door, and neighborhood parks were their primary access to the outdoors. When questioned further, many of them revealed that they were fearful about the destruction of nature. Ultimately, researchers found that most of their information about nature came from television—their parents and teachers were significantly less influential. This aligns with recent evidence suggesting that many science teachers don’t teach students about climate change.

McCaffrey noted that teachers may avoid discussing climate change because they are challenged by conflicting information about the validity of atmospheric research. An important strategy is thus to arm educators with the ample evidence that clearly dispels this notion. To illustrate his point, McCaffrey described the history of climate research starting in the mid-19th century with John Tyndall, a prominent physicist and contemporary of Darwin. One generation later, Swedish scientist Svante Arrehenius developed a mathematical model that suggested that a doubling of CO2 would cause the atmosphere to warm several degrees Celsius, which is still very much in line with current projections. Remarkably this research was conducted more than 100 years ago and refutes the misconception that climate science is a new endeavor and thus more prone to error.

McCaffrey was followed by Peter M. J. Hess, NCSE’s Director of Religious Community Outreach. Hess is also a theologian focusing on the relationship between science and religion and he provided a theological perspective from which to address the issues at hand. Dr. Hess opened his remarks by stating that teaching science to students with a religious background should not be inherently more difficult than teaching science to other students; everyone brings presuppositions into the science classroom that must be explored and addressed. That being said, religious students may have specific concerns that merit attention.

Hess discussed three approaches that instructors can employ to address student concerns. He first echoed Kenneth Miller’s recommendation to cite scientists who have successfully integrated their religious views with their research. Also important is the fact that many theological authorities have publicly stated that science and faith can harmoniously coexist. As an example, Hess cited Pope Benedict’s assertion that the discoveries of modern science are compatible with the activity of God in the universe. Finally, Hess highlighted the importance of teaching students to distinguish between scientific evidence and their philosophical, theological, and political associations. The problems that members of the public have with evolution rarely have anything to do with science itself. The contentious issues usually come down to theological matters, particularly in regards to human uniqueness. Conceptions of human nature, original sin, and the soul have a long intellectual history, and interpreting their intellectual content has always been a challenge that is outside the realm of natural science.

Our three speakers were followed by DoSER Program Director Jennifer Wiseman who took the floor as a respondent. Wiseman spoke about her experiences talking to religious communities about astronomy and remarked that she gives the same talk to both liberal and conservative religious groups and both receive her talks with equal enthusiasm. What these groups share is a sense of awe and wonder about nature, something that both science and religion can tap into. Additionally, many churches are eager to be good stewards of the environment, to learn more about the science of climate change, and to use technology in ways that serve and benefit others. Wiseman emphasized the point that while religious students may have concerns about science, religion can also catalyze positive interest and excitement.

Dr. Wiseman pointed out that both teachers and religious leaders can help facilitate a less combative approach to science. Teachers can strive to create an atmosphere in which students feel free to explore. When learning about science, students need to be able to ask questions and not feel that their religious faith is ridiculed. Pronouncements such as “Science is based on evidence, religion is based on faith” are heavily loaded and can be interpreted to mean that science is based on truth, while religion is based on superstition. Putting students on the defensive is not conducive to establishing trust in scientific knowledge.

The presentations were followed by a lively discussion with the audience featuring an array of questions and comments, moderated by DoSER project director Dr. Peyton West. Issues ranged from the extent to which science teachers can address metaphysical questions to what the religious implications of finding extra-terrestrial life might be. In response, Kenneth Miller noted that scientists should stress the empirical nature of what they do, and they should be careful to distinguish when they are exploring the “deeper meaning” of their subjects. Peter Hess remarked that 2000 years of work by theologians have prepared religious communities to reconcile extraterrestrial life into the religious beliefs. Fittingly, the symposium concluded with a comment by a high school science teacher. He affirmed that two of the most important strategies when working with students are to teach science as a process rather than a collection of facts and to provide a supportive atmosphere in which students can voice their questions and concerns.

(1) J. Davis, T. Smith, P. Marsden, General Social Surveys: 1972–2000, National Opinion Research Center, Chicago, 2001. Cited by A. Mazur (2007) Science 315: 187
(2) Scheitle, C. P. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2011) 50:175–186